The tale of the Gemma Constantiniana

Article | Updated 6 months ago

The cameo against a black background

The Gemma Constantiniana
Image copyright WA Museum 

Intricately carved agate set within a glittering frame, the Gemma Constantiniana displays a victorious tableau enriched with polished rubies and emeralds. This awe-inspiring cameo is thought to have been made in the 4th century, and since then has found itself in the possession of merchants, mutineers and royalty. This unique object was featured within the Western Australian Museum exhibition, Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean World.

Between 315 and 316 CE, the Roman Senate commissioned a cameo to commemorate the victory of emperor Constantine over his rival Maxentius in 312. The exquisite gift displays Constantine in a chariot, flanked by his wife, Fausta, and his mother, Helena. Constantine’s firstborn son, Crispus, proudly stands in front of the trio. This powerful illustration reveals a strong dynastic rule, with the implication that it will continue for many generations to come.

Two centaurs, whose hooves are crashing down and trampling Constantine’s enemies, stand in the foreground of the cameo. In the sky flies the goddess Victoria bearing a laurel wreath, which she will bestow upon the triumphant Constantine.

Despite being set in stone, the scene is alive with movement. The fluttering ribbon attached to the laurel wreath and the knocked over calyx-crater (a vessel used to mix water and wine) under the left centaur, animates the cameo. The clever inclusion of these details alludes to the high level of skill held by the engraver.

The artist’s talent is also made evident by the uneven surface of the stone. Although indistinguishable from a bird’s-eye view, the cameo is not uniformly flat. Chiseling through the alternating coloured layers of agate, there are areas where the engraver reached a contrasting colour higher in the stone. This demonstrates the mastery of the crafter as they worked to account for these natural inconsistencies.

The cameo is angled on a white background

The skill of the engraver is evident from the uneven surface of the stone
Image copyright WA Museum 

The Gemma Constantiniana is also known as The Great Cameo, a reference to its size and magnificence. There are only two other cameos of a similar classification that has survived since antiquity. They are found respectively within museum collections in Paris and Vienna.

It is thought that the cameo was brought to Europe after the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople in the 13th century. However, the exact location of the cameo can only be confirmed when it is in the possession of the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens in the 1620s. It is theorised that one of Ruben’s associates created the gilded silver frame that the cameo is still displayed within.

The frame was originally an elaborate diamond-shaped design. Each corner was embellished with precious gems and complex portraits. A 1765 illustration by Dutch artist Simon Fokke reveals the frame in its initial state.

Sometime during the 18th or 19th century, it is thought that the outer frame was removed by a private owner. These fragments were then sold to ease personal financial stress.

Hand-coloured print ca. 1765 by Simon Fokke, cameo

Hand-coloured print ca. 1765 by Simon Fokke, cameo
Image Copyright Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden

Around the time of Ruben’s ownership, the Dutch East India Company or VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), operated vast trade networks across the Indian Ocean. This created the connection between the Gemma Constantiniana and Western Australia.

Francisco Pelsaert was a VOC merchant stationed in Northern India from 1620. Pelsaert became well accustomed with the attitudes of the Mughal Empire, ruled at this time by Jahangir. A characteristic of Jahangir’s court was the appreciation of art, culture and lavish wares. Recognising a market for finer items, Pelsaert worked with the VOC to fulfill this demand.

In 1628, Pelsaert entered discussion with an Amsterdam-based jeweler Casbar Boudaen, who had since acquired ownership of the cameo. With plans of selling the precious cameo for a significant profit, it was loaded onto the Batavia and left the Netherlands in October of the same year.

The fate of the Batavia is a well-known story within Western Australian history. In June of 1629 the Batavia wrecked on Morning Reef in the Houtman Abrolhos, roughly 80 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. Leaving the survivors of the wreck with the remaining resources, Pelsaert and his fellow senior officers departed to seek aid.

During Pelsaert’s absence Jeronimus Cornelisz, who was the ship under merchant, held a bloody and brutal mutiny. When Pelsaert and his men returned in September of 1629, they discovered that out of the 316 people originally aboard the Batavia only 116 were now left alive.

Following the trials of Cornelisz and his men, the cameo was recovered along with many other valuable items that had been commandeered by the murdering mutineers.

Engraving of the massacre that followed the Batavia shipwreck - from the Jan Jan

Engraving of the massacre that followed the Batavia shipwreck. From the Jan Janz 1647 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie
Image copyright WA Museum 

Despite recovering the cameo, Pelsaert was unable to sell the precious gem. Jahangir had died in late 1627 and the court of his successor, Shah Jahan, had ceased to promote the same interest in the arts.

Following the lost deal, the Gemma Constantiniana travelled to India, Sumatra and Persia in the hope of finding a potential buyer. In 1656, after decades of failed deals, the cameo was returned to the heirs of Boudaen in the Netherlands.

The cameo remained in private hands until 1856 when King Willem I purchased it for 50,000 guilders.

In 2007 the Dutch Royal Cabinet merged with the Money Museum in Utrecht. In 2013 this collection was then transferred to the Rijksmuseum van Oudehen in Leiden. This is where the cameo resides.

The display of the Gemma Constantiniana marked the first time the cameo has been in Western Australia in 388 years. It highlights the intertwined histories of cultures that were connected by the Indian Ocean.

Curator Ben van den Burcken carefully unpacks the cameo for installation

Curator Ben van den Bercken carefully unpacks the cameo for display
Image copyright WA Museum 

Further Reading

Green, J 1989, The loss of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie retourschip BATAVIA, Western Australia 1629. An excavation report and catalogue of artefacts.
Available from: http://museum.wa.gov.au/maritime-archaeology-db/sites/default/files/no-276-batavia-bar489.pdf

Henderson, G 2016, 'The Dutch East India Company's Ship Batavia, Lost in 1629', Swallowed by the Sea: The Story of Australia's Shipwrecks, pp. 18 - 31. National Library of Australia, Canberra.